June 17, 2024

My debate with John Lepp

Lepp of faith

This was my first formal debate ever. I mean, I’ve argued with a few evangelicals online or on someone’s radio show, and some of those were called “debates”. But this was the real deal, two people sharing the stage with a proper moderator -addressing a live audience in the same room. I’ve never done that before.


I misread the format of the debate. I thought that each of us would have a first and second presentation, one for opening statements and then one to rebut the opponent’s claims -before we got to cross examination. This made sense to me since both of us were expected to have our opening arguments prepared in advance. Since John went first, then it seems that it didn’t matter what my points were; apparently I was only supposed to counter whatever his argument was, without prior knowledge, and without submitting an argument of my own. So when he took the stage, I reviewed my notes ready to copy down whatever he said that I needed to address. Fortunately, the points he made that I needed to rebut were already written into my script. So I didn’t think I had to change anything.


As I explained in the summary comment video above, in order to defeat his syllogism, I only had to show that we humans decide for ourselves what is good, and/or that the notion of what is good is a product of nature. I mentioned a bit about the evolution of morality, and gave enough specifics that I certainly made that case at least, although Mr Lepp would not concede that of course. He acknowledged that his syllogism could also be refuted if I could show that “good” could be objectively determined. I did that too, though I didn’t really need to. If humans are unable to establish an objective concept of what “good” is, that only means that “good” is a complex concept and difficult to define. That doesn’t mean there’s a magical man in the sky. Oh you guys can’t always completely agree on what’s morally acceptable in every culture in all conditions? Well, I guess we’d better imagine that it’s all djinni magic then. That is exactly how “externally consistent” his disjunctive syllogism seemed to me. Failing to rebut it would sooner prove that good does not exist than it would to prove that God does.

Mr. Lepp’s objection seemed to be, (and he did argue this) that it isn’t possible to make sense of what “good” is unless one assumes that there is a god, since he wouldn’t accept that “good” could be a necessary product of the evolution of social animals. Remember he said that natural conditions cannot be the cause of anything without intelligent intent. Still I gave an objective definition of “good” that can be defended on the basis of reason and which obviously exists in, and evidently emerged from nature, regardless whether there is a god or not: though Mr Lepp wouldn’t concede that either. Somehow meeting both of his criteria still wasn’t good enough, unless I could satisfy his arbitrary additional condition that it also be valuative. I had just explained that my objective definition of “good” meant the most positive and productive possibility for all participants in all circumstances, including the determinant of each of the illustrative examples he gave in his presentation. Yet Mr Lepp doesn’t understand why I value that? Honestly the answer was so obvious and so recently explained that when he questioned me on that, I thought he must be alluding to something else: perhaps another “how can you be sure you really know that?” apologetic like I so often get from creationists. He did that too later on. Now I realize that I didn’t explain things fully enough.

That’s where this debate was a valuable lesson for me. Earlier today, the Bible and Beer Consortium published their very polished and professional video of our debate within just a couple days of the event itself. I was already well into rendering my own video when I saw that they just posted theirs minutes ago. But what usually happens when I trust someone else to record is there are often excessive delays and other issues to worry about. I’m still waiting on another video from another source that has me anxious, and I didn’t want to be concerned with all that anymore. So I brought four cameras and three mics to record the event myself. Actually I only brought one camera. Zachary Moore from the Fellowship of Freethought brought one as well, and Matt Dillahunty brought all his own recording equipment. Matt had very kindly offered to drive up from Austin just to record my debate, after which he drove all the way home again to make other appointments. What all that means is that I spent last night and all of today synching four video tracks to three audio tracks, and in the process I was able to review the entire debate again. This allowed me to notice things I had missed before. Now I have a better idea of what some people were apparently thinking when they said things that didn’t make sense at the time. That’s why I’m writing this blog post.

The first problem is that Mr Lepp seems to literally believe that he had actually proven the existence of God using only a philosophical argument in lieu of evidence. Even if I personally hadn’t been able to meet either or any of the conditions of his disjunctive syllogism, he still wouldn’t have proven God. Am I being too literal? I mean, we know that Lavoisier disproved phlogiston in 1783, Wöhler disproved Vitalism in 1828. Dobzhansky proved speciation in the 1960s, and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory proved gravity waves in February of 2015. Will next year’s news reveal that John Lepp has proved the existence of God last night? I don’t even think he believes that, yet that’s what he really seemed to think when we were on stage.

Mr Lepp also ignored each of my rebuttals without consideration or explanation, just as he ignored every other valid point I made. He wouldn’t even accept that social animal groups would still exhibit pro-social behaviors whether God exists or not. He repeatedly demonstrated that he was unable to reconsider his own position in lieu of evidence or in spite of evidence. This indicated to me that I had defined “faith” correctly too. Yet he also did as believers always do, accusing me of accepting science on faith. He couldn’t distinguish arguments from evidence, and he confused faith with induction. Then he said that faith is a belief based on evident probabilities. Worse, he even cited Hebrews 11:1 to prove it: which by the way does not say “things not yet seen”; it says “things not seen” at all.

Then he told me that if I asked, Richard Dawkins would tell me that faith is inference according to evidence. Except that Dawkins has already famously said that “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

I said in my presentation that every logical fallacy is employed in defense of God, and Mr. Lepp demonstrated that himself with the typical circular reasoning, special pleading, and unverifiable anecdotes of personal testimony that we typically hear from believers. He also used the argument every believer uses, that we don’t really know what we know. I hate that one, and it comes up every time. Finally it became a semantics game when he said that my definition of “good” was too specific, and that his definition was left vague enough to include his god. I took that to mean that was a contrived word-game, just as I thought.

But I’m writing this post to reflect on my own short-comings, not his. There is an old saying that “you are your own worst critic.” Actually my friend, Matt Dillahunty is more critical of me than I am. But I am still interested in finding and correcting as many of my own mistakes as I can, and hopefully before Matt does. For example, I don’t think I ever heard the story of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. So when Mr Lepp brought that up, I should have asked him what claim he was actually making: so that I could adequately answer his question of what qualifies as evidence of that. In the Q&A, Zach Moore also asked me what evidence I would accept of God, and I should have answered that more clearly too. Matt Dillahunty answers that by saying that he doesn’t know what evidence would convince him, but that God should know that, if he was real. So God should be able to direct his believers to a satisfactory answer. I could have said that too: I should have.

Just as Matt admits that his knowledge of science isn’t adequate to debate that topic, I too must admit that I literally don’t even what he’s talking about when it comes to philosophy. This is something I mean to change if I can figure out when to do that or what books to borrow. But another problem I have is that I never came from an authoritarian mindset. Even when I believed in God, I still thought that if God commanded anything, there would always be a reason that he could explain for why that need be done. For me, reasons mattered more than God. Authoritarian dictates and popular opinion don’t really matter to me at all, and that caused my biggest short-coming in that debate.

I asked the audience if anyone thought that Lepp showed reason to believe in a god. Only one hand went up, and I’d bet he was already a believer. There were a lot of atheist groups there, and I don’t think Lepp converted even one of them.

In the Q&A, there were a number of people who asked how my definition of “good” could be objective. The people asking me this don’t think in terms of dominant trends in population genetics; they think in terms of what authority I have to say these things if someone disagrees with me. Because it either has to be an order from on-high or it has to be a consensus opinion, and that opinion is refuted by any inconsistency. They don’t hear that I have a definition, and they don’t care what the definition is. They don’t want to examine it to see if it works, if it’s applicable or sufficiently succinct and accurate. Instead they kept asking me “where” that objective standard is -as if they have to see it carved in stone by the ancient scribes. I didn’t even catch that, and I’m embarrassed now that I didn’t.

Unfortunately, I am often unable to see things from another person’s perspective. So I was getting angry at having to answer the same question again and again when I think the answer is so obvious. The definition wasn’t derived by a vote of any majority; it is objective because it was determined by reason, and can only be defended by reason. Because no one yet has been able to a show a reason that it’s a wrong. But we can show that there are reasons to hold that definition as the standard now that we’ve figured it out. At worst we might refine and improve it. But I don’t think it will be refuted.

So in the end, someone in the Q&A asked me whether it always wrong all the time for anyone to torture and kill babies for pleasure, and if so why. That absurd question came from a mind-set I can’t even relate to. So I didn’t answer correctly. Instead, I asked what the reason could be? By then I should have realized that perspective they’re missing is reason itself. If I had asked him why he shouldn’t do that, he might have said that it was because of God or his fear of damnation or something like that. But my answer should have been to ask him again what reason he could give that doesn’t come from his religion: because I know he can list lots of good solid reasons why no one should ever do that under any circumstances –regardless of their cultural or spiritual beliefs, even if we could prove that there is no god. He already knows the answer; he just thinks it comes from a divine authority beyond our own reasoning. But we humans determine what “good” means according to reasons: what will allow us and ours to survive the longest in the most enjoyable and productive social circumstances possible, and that also works for every other interactive species already doing that. I have to stop assuming that people understand my answers when I don’t even understand why they’re asking the question. How do they not already know better?

Well, lesson learned. I won’t miss that question again.

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